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The toughest athletic event on the planet is heading to China

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

Tough Mudder is heading east.

The obstacle-course run, which boasts challenges like the Fire Walker (sprint through flaming straw), Electric Shock Therapy (dangling live wires shock you from above), and Berlin Wall (self-explanatory), launched in 2010 and quickly became the “it” outdoor competitive activity of the moment. But its appeal has lasted: The privately held company, which never took venture capital (it makes its revenue from $125 entry fees), says it now brings in $100 million per year in revenue, and turns a profit of $5 million. Two million people have participated in a Tough Mudder.

That momentum was encouraging enough to attract IMG, the giant sports agency that merged with Hollywood agency WME in 2014. Through a new partnership with IMG, Tough Mudder is expanding to China, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, South Korea and Singapore. (In a separate partnership, it will also hold its first event in Indonesia this year.) This marks the first time Tough Mudder has licensed out its events.

This isn’t the first international expansion by the series—it operates in places like Canada and Australia. The events, which conclude with finishers chugging a beer (from sponsor Anheuser-Busch InBev, of course), may seem distinctly Western—but CEO Will Dean says he’s confident it can be a hit in the East because, "You see more people there embracing active lifestyles, it's all about teamwork and camaraderie. I remember when we first took the event to Europe, people said, 'Oh, I don't think Europeans are going to embrace this.' And we're as popular in Europe as we are in North America now. So I think you see emerging middle class and some rapid growth in those economies."

This year, the company will hold 122 events in 10 countries, including the new IMG-sponsored events in China and the UAE. The events in Japan, Singapore, and South Korea begin in 2017.

Tough Mudder’s tagline is, “Probably the Toughest Event on the Planet.” Devotees of other grueling, overnight relay races like the Barkley Marathon (100 miles, with a completion rate of 1% to Tough Mudder’s 80%) may quibble with that designation, but Tough Mudder could certainly call itself the “toughest event for regular people who are in decent shape.” It has found success by catering to folks who don’t do events like this all year round, and maybe haven’t ever done one. Indeed, last year it launched Tough Mudder “half” events, which are only 5-6 miles instead of 10-12 miles, and saw such interest it will offer 26 of them this year. It is not without controversy: in 2013 a participant, Avishek Sengupta, drowned at a Tough Mudder in West Virginia. Will Dean says of the tragedy, “Of course we want the number to be zero, but that’s one person out of 2 million.”

Since its inception, the company has been smart about strategic partnerships, pulling in sponsors that make sense for both the brand image and the meat and bones of what a Tough Mudder involves: Shock Top is its official beer; hiking footwear company Merrell provides the T-shirts and now sells a line of Tough Mudder shoes specifically designed for running in the mud; Old Spice deodorant is a sponsor.

Now, along with the Eastern expansion, Tough Mudder has announced new partnerships with Microsoft Band (it becomes the official fitness tracker of Tough Mudder) and Snapchat (to share live, user-uploaded “Stories” from its events).

With social media platforms pushing live video content like never before, Snapchat is a no-brainer: What could be better suited to live video than the excitement and drama of a brutal obstacle course? The question for the business, moving forward, is whether tough runners in Eastern nations will feel the same excitement.

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Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology.  

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